Who knew at the beginning of the year that 1998 would be the most bizarre year in Valley history? At the time, Raymond Cooper was no more than a radio “nut job” espousing his theories about UFOs, the federal government and other outrageous topics.
In January, there was only one newspaper in town, The Lennox Valley Hometown News. None of the good folks had met Juliet Stoughton, and the idea of a female minister at the Methodist church was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
Even with everything that transpired in 1998, the most outrageous memory has to be the disappearance of the town complainer, A.J. Fryerson.
There we were, on New Year’s Eve, assembled in the fellowship hall, sanctuary and Sunday school classrooms of Lennox Valley Methodist Church. Thank heavens it was warm for December, as hundreds of folks, mostly ones with young children, gathered on the church lawn and playground wearing overcoats and mittens.
I don’t think anyone expected such a big crowd. Even though the story in Hometown News quoted the Rev. Sarah Hyden-Smith inviting everyone to come to the Methodist church for a very special announcement on New Year’s Eve, no one anticipated most of the Valley would show up.
Conspicuous in their absence were Raymond Cooper and his minions. Raymond, Elbert Lee, Marvin Walsh and Farley Puckett were nowhere to be seen. Cooper’s other devotee, Earl Goodman, arrived with his wife, Rhonda, early in the evening, but excused himself to visit the restroom soon after. That may have been the longest restroom visit in Valley history, because no one remembers seeing him again until just before midnight.
This was 1998, a time before huge video screens adorned the walls of churches as they do today. Perry Prince, owner of the general store, used his connections at the junior college in Springfield to borrow a video projector, something most Valley folks had never seen, so everyone could count down the New Year with Dick Clark as the giant glass ball made its way to the ground in far away Times Square, New York.
So there we were — Methodists, Baptists, Catholics and Lutherans young and old. The whole town had been talking about the New Year’s Eve party since it was announced weeks earlier. It was the social event of the season in my hometown.
There was fruit punch and all types of desserts prepared by the Methodist women’s group. Anyone who knows anything about Methodist women knows they sure can put out a spread of food.
Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “I’d rather face 10,000 soldiers, armed to the hilt, than 50 women coming in the name of the Lord.” He knew what he was talking about.
Foreseeing an obvious shortage in refreshments as the throng filled the church, Perry Prince made a trip to his store and loaded pies, cookies and cakes into his truck. It would be his donation to the festive event. Later, 20 minutes before the shiny ball would drop from the sky announcing the New Year, Perry decided to make a second “snack run” to appease the hungry crowd. He loaded the last of his cakes and pies into the back of his pickup and headed back to the church.
While Prince was loading his truck, Sarah Hyden-Smith gathered the crowd for an announcement. As the TV volume was muted, silencing the sound of Dick Clark and a million revelers on Times Square, the crowd hushed.
“This must be it,” Vera Penrod was overheard saying to her best friend, Helen Walker. “She’s going to make her announcement.”
“As promised, I have some very important news to share with you,” Sarah began. The crowd stayed silent. “What I would like to tell you is . . .”
At that moment, the entire church, including the lights on the church lawn and playground, went black.
“There must be a power outage,” Earl Goodman shouted, back from his noticeably long bathroom visit. “I guess we should just go home.”
At that moment, a commotion was heard outside. Suddenly, the lights came back on, and Chief Dibble came through the crowded fellowship hall, pulling Raymond Cooper and Marvin Walsh behind him.
“I found these two, along with Elbert Lee and Farley, out by the fuse box. Elbert Lee had a fuse from the box in his hand,” snarled Dibble.
“There is a simple explanation,” Cooper shouted. “We were simply putting a new fuse in the box, after seeing the lights go out from the station lobby.”
Just then, Iris Long did something no one in the throng will ever forget. She made her way through the crowd, walked up to Raymond Cooper, and smacked him — hard — across his face.
“We have put up with your lies and shenanigans long enough!” Iris shouted. “You and your friends did everything you could to keep Sarah from making her announcement, and it didn’t work.”
Turning to face the assembly, she roared, “Who wants to hear Sarah’s announcement?”
On the huge screen, made from four king-size sheets sewn together by the Baptist quilting group, on the wall directly behind Sarah, Dick Clark made his way through the crowd. He was visiting with folks who had come from all over the world to celebrate the arrival of a new year. There were Barry and Angela from Tennessee. Michelle and Jeff Van Hee had their sleeping son, Derrik, with them.
“I’m ready to make my announcement,” shouted Sarah.
The crowd grew silent. You could have heard a pin drop.
“On March 6, I will become the wife of Frank Bell!”
There were cheers from some in the crowd, while others stood in shocked disbelief.
“Wait, that’s it?” roared Bruce Galyon.
“Yeah, what about A.J. Fryerson?” Boyd Sanders yelled.
“What do you mean?” asked Sarah. “Why would I know anything about A.J.?”
At that moment, Jessie, waitress at the Hoffbrau, screamed at the top of her lungs, “Everybody be quiet! Turn up the volume on the TV!”
I was there. I can honestly say I have never seen anything so utterly amazing and probably never will again. For as we stood, staring at the screen as Tommy Elrod fiddled with the volume button, we saw the most amazing sight on the TV.
There Dick Clark was, holding his microphone as a familiar face spoke, though we still couldn’t hear anything. Suddenly words appeared beneath the talking figure — “A.J. Fryerson.”
Finally, Tommy got the volume working just in time to hear Dick Clark say, “That is the most bizarre story I have ever heard, A.J.,” before turning his attention to the sky, announcing, “It’s time!”
The crowd inside and outside the Methodist church joined with the crowd in Times Square and crowds gathered in hamlets and villages throughout the land as they counted, “10! 9! 8! 7! 6! 5! 4! 3! 2! 1! Happy New Year!”
I enjoyed my first New Year’s kiss with MaryAnn Tankersly, the prettiest girl in Lennox Valley, at the stroke of midnight.
No one that I know of recorded Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve that night. For years, we wondered how A.J. ended up on Times Square as 1998 came to a close. Eventually, we learned what really happened to him.
But that, as they say, is another story for another day.
You will still be able to keep up with the folks from Lennox Valley as Kevin provides updates to readers on LennoxValley.com. If you haven’t already, be sure to purchase your own copy of “The Good Folks of Lennox Valley” at Amazon.com. It includes quite a bit of information not included in the newspaper version of the story.